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Dallas Struggles to Escape Segregated Legacy

Housing and rent subsidy programs in Dallas — like many Texas cities — have long perpetuated segregation by funneling poor renters into poor neighborhoods. New federal rules are aimed at turning that around.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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DALLAS — By most accounts, census tract 166.05 is not a particularly desirable place to live. Tucked between two major highways in southwest Dallas, the neighborhood is characterized by clusters of ramshackle, one-story houses, huge swaths of vacant land and big warehouses and storage centers.

More than 40 percent of people living in the census tract have incomes below the poverty level, a proportion that more than doubled since 2000, according to U.S. Census data. Crime rates and levels of slum and blight are also high, according to the Dallas-based housing advocacy group the Inclusive Communities Project.

Federal rent assistance programs shouldn't be used to place poor families in such a neighborhood, the project believes. And yet more than 100 families who receive federal rent subsidies known as Housing Choice Vouchers through Dallas County have been placed there. 

Such placement “perpetuates segregation,” the group wrote in a strongly worded letter to the Dallas County Housing Agency in October. The vast majority of Dallas County’s 4,200 rent-subsidy users are black, and they are being steered to “minority-concentrated, high poverty areas,” the group said.

The group sent similar letters to five other housing authorities who administer federal rent subsidies in the Dallas area, with plenty more examples of large numbers of families on housing assistance — most black or nonwhite Hispanic — ending up in places not that different from census tract 166.05.

Of the more than 30,000 Dallas-area rent-subsidy holders, 90 percent live in neighborhoods with concentrations of minority residents, and 17 percent live in census tracts with relatively high poverty rates, ICP says.

That data is not new; Poor families on government assistance don’t often have the opportunity to live in a zip code that offers them better schools or city services. But now that the federal government has told local governments they need to get serious about ending housing segregation, the Inclusive Communities Project hopes the data will get some fresh attention.

“It puts the spotlight on cities and housing authorities and what they have not been doing regarding fair housing,” said Betsy Julian, the group’s president.

New teeth in old rules

The new rules, announced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in July, aim to put a new emphasis on fair housing issues that experts say have been ignored for decades.

Existing fair housing laws were written to address segregated housing patterns that are “the product of government and policy that go back decades and decades,” said Rigel Oliveri, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri.

“What it was intended to do was to say that, when you are using federal money [for housing programs], you have to do it in a manner that affirmatively furthers fair housing,” Oliveri explained.

That means doing more than just preventing overt discrimination; it means encouraging more “integrated living patterns,” so that poorer families — who tend to be families of color — have the chance to live in lower poverty areas and access better schools and services.

But those rules have largely been ignored. Now, HUD aims to enforce them by providing new data on housing patterns across the country, evaluating communities’ assessments of fair housing issues and requiring them to develop specific plans to address the problem.

“African-American families of low income, Hispanic families of low income, are concentrated in the neighborhoods in Dallas that have the fewest commercial and city services, the worst transportation and the worst schools,” said Mary Ann Russ, director of the city of Dallas’ housing authority, which administers more than 16,000 rent vouchers. “We have to do everything that we can do to help those families with vouchers.”

How this will be achieved in anybody’s guess. “It’s mostly providing local governments with data,” said Oliveri. “Is that actually going to result in a lot of changes? I don’t know.”

And housing advocacy groups like ICP don’t yet know how the new fair housing rules could help any of those 100 families move out of census tract 166.05. (That neighborhood doesn’t just have a cluster of families who have Dallas County-administered rent subsidies; low-income housing in general is disproportionately located there, according to a city of Dallas report.)

An obvious reason families on rent subsidies end up in high-poverty areas is because their subsidies won’t cover the cost of apartments located anywhere else. But in the Dallas area, that should be less of a barrier because a lawsuit brought by ICP led to a major change in the way that the federal government sets rent subsidy limits.

Essentially, the change allows rent subsidies to be set higher for wealthier zip codes, giving poor families a better chance of affording to live in one even on government assistance. The change has allowed many families in Dallas to move to better neighborhoods, even venturing outside of Dallas County; more than 1,000 families with rent subsidies under the Dallas Housing Authority now live in Collin and Denton Counties, according to ICP.

Still, the barriers go beyond how much the rent subsidy can pay. Even if a poor family can pay rent in a wealthier neighborhood, they may not find a willing landlord — a huge problem for Dallas-area families that keeps them in areas of high poverty, ICP said.

“The barriers are huge,” said Julian. “The biggest for us is landlords that won’t take vouchers.” ICP has tried to get more landlords on board by offering to act as a guarantor if rent isn't paid on time, and even to pay for extra expenses that a landlord has to deal with such as apartment inspections and other bureaucratic headaches. But no landlord has taken the group up on those offers. 

Dallas not alone

The problem goes far beyond Dallas. In Austin, the city council tried to address it with an ordinance that forbade landlords from discriminating against a tenant based on their source of income. That would mean they could not reject tenants simply because they were paying their rent with a government subsidy.

The ordinance passed in January 2015. A few months later, the Texas Legislature reversed it by banning such ordinances statewide.

Even if such an ordinance were an option in Texas, though, it’s not clear if local governments would want to use it. When asked by the Tribune if lack of landlord participation was a barrier for families on rent subsidies, the email response from the Dallas County Housing Agency was brief: “no.”

Russ, of the city of Dallas Housing Authority, does not agree. “That has not been our experience at all. People still have difficulty” moving into better neighborhoods, even if they can technically afford to, she said.

The Dallas County Housing Agency declined to make its executive director, Zachary Thompson, available for an interview.

“DCHA does not limit the family’s freedom of choice in selecting housing, nor does DCHA discourage a family from choosing to live anywhere in the jurisdiction,” the housing authority’s spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Furthermore, property owners must make the decision to list their properties.”

Russ said she hopes to corral the other Dallas-area housing authorities to submit a regional fair housing assessment and plan to address the issue, which is an option under the federal government’s new rules. The assessment of fair housing is not due until 2017.

The city of Dallas’ housing authority is in a unique position to lead on this issue, Russ said, because a lawsuit over segregated housing in the 1980s forced it to start addressing the problem earlier than most other cities. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“It was true. We did evil things ... bad stuff happened,” Russ said of the way Dallas placed families on rent subsidies back then. “It is not going to happen again. By God, we’re not going to do that again.”

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